To paraphrase This is Spinal Tap, this movie goes to eleven, in a bugfuck-crazy fireball explosion at the genre factory. With a “begin as you mean to go on” ethos, the film opens with a spectacular, loud, and in-your-face slice of action in which we are introduced to protagonists Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and Ford (Wyatt Russell), two American paratroopers hunkered down on a plane dodging hot death in the night skies of France during D-Day in World War II. It is June 6, 1944, and Boyce and Ford are part of an outfit whose mission is to destroy a Nazi radio tower in a church in the French countryside. In a sequence that consumes a good dose of one’s adrenaline supply, the plane is shot down and the camera follows Boyce in a continuous shot as he plummets downward, through fiery inferno, towards the fields of destruction below. Dizzying and disorienting, this is one of the most impressive openings to any film this year, and though the movie does take its breath when it needs to, the pacing from here onwards never flags.
Both Boyce and Ford make it to the ground alive and team up with the surviving paratroopers to get to the town to blow up the radio tower. Hiding out in the house of French civilian Chloe (Mathilde Olivier), they plot their sabotage mission. It’s here that the film slowly but surely shifts genre as Boyce and Ford begin to realize there is something more going on in the gothic and labyrinthine cellars of the church, something sinister involving human experiments to create an unstoppable undead force. “A thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers,” explains one of the Nazis.
You gotta respect director Julius Avery and writers Billy Ray (Captain Phillips; The Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (co-writer on The Revenant) for going balls to the wall on this one. Overlord is like a mutant spliced from the DNA of Band of Brothers and Day of the Dead, with ’80s splatter liberally applied throughout. However over-the-top the film goes in terms of its violence, horror, and gore, it never winks or goes tongue-in-cheek; it plays everything straight throughout. And over-the-top it gleefully goes, with baroque body horror, unstoppable Nazi zombies, cable-veined and missing parts of their face, villains (and heroes) rising from the dead, a murky red reanimating serum straight out of a Stuart Gordon flick, and much Savini-esque bodily carnage, including a grenade-in-the-mouth head explosion gag that was in George Romero’s ambitious original script for his third zombie movie before he had to scale it back when he couldn’t get the required budget. The movie is as intense as having to operate on your own spleen, and many times as messy. If you’re a certain kind of horror fan and in the right frame of mind, you’re gonna fucking love it.
Beyond the conviction and the unwavering commitment to go all the way, what makes Overlord work so beautifully is how appealing and well-acted all the characters are and how exquisitely made and paced it all is. There’s a level of care and intelligence with the writing and design that, dare I say it, is somewhat reminiscent of how a filmmaker like Guillermo Del Toro approaches his genre pieces. The filmmakers obviously took great pains to make the characters three-dimensional, even down to the deliciously evil Nazi officer villain played by Pilou Asbæk (Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones). All this work pays off in spades when the shit really hits the fan in act three, as you’re invested in the characters and their plight and root for them to make it out of the slimy hellhole they’re trapped in. If nothing else, Overlord is a crown jewel in the Nazi horror subgenre, an admittedly limited field that includes Shockwaves (1977) and Dead Snow (2009). (While we’re on the subject, someone should make a movie from Clive Barker’s eerie aquatic Nazi zom story Scapegoats.)
A modestly budgeted film ($38M), unfortunately Overlord hasn’t exactly set the box office afire to date. As of November 19, 2018, it grossed just over $18M in the U.S. and Canada. This is a crying shame as it’s exactly the kind of film that genre movie fans complain studios don’t make anymore. Overlord is a cult classic in the making. Get your ass to a theatre to see it if you can.
Nazis. I hate these guys.
– Paul Sparrow-Clarke